CULTURE

Athenian symbols of power at Acropolis and Delphi

Overlooking the approach to the Acropolis? western gateway stands the steep-sided bastion once devoted primarily to the worship of Athena Nike ? Athena (Goddess of) Victory. The small, Ionic temple visible on top of the bastion to the right as visitors ascend the serpentine present-day path was the first of the Acropolis? monuments that pilgrims in antiquity also would see as they approached the Sacred Rock in the 5th century BC. In earlier times, the Mycenaeans, in the latter half of the 2nd millennium BC, had already established a shrine on the spot ? consisting of two niches carved into the west face of a massive tower they had constructed of large stones (Cyclopean masonry) that once protected the entrance to the Late Bronze Age citadel.

According to a later Athenian legend, King Aegeus, co-father (with Poseidon) of the hero Theseus, threw himself off the Acropolis from this prominent Cyclopean bastion when he saw his son?s ship returning from Crete rigged with black sails. Aegeus believed his beloved progeny had been killed by the Minotaur at Knossos but the successful, absent-minded hero had simply forgotten to change his dark sails to victorious white as his father had requested. History, both factual and legendary, was important to ancient Athenians, since recorded memories and cherished local stories, especially in combination with physical traces of the past, served to recall the city?s glorious foundation, long-held traditions and previous accomplishments.

The Athena Nike sanctuary of Classical times, conceived as part of Pericles? building program, not only monumentalized a respected, pre-existing Archaic shrine to the goddess on top of the bastion, but three peculiar openings in the new, smooth walls of its supporting pedestal below (two on the west; one on the north) also revealed to passers-by the remains of the Bronze Age Mycenaean shrine and the Cyclopean tower now encased within late 5th century BC improvements. The Athena Nike sanctuary also represented a war memorial, however, decorated with highly symbolic sculptural works that reminded viewers of past Athenian military successes. Classical-era Athenians appear to have been clever propagandists who selected key positions in prominent public places ? not only in Athens but elsewhere, too, including Delphi ? to erect meaningful, self-promotional monuments that affirmed their supremacy among the ancient Greek city states.

The Temple of Athena Nike was a small, elegant structure built by the architect Callicrates to contain the venerable wooden cult statue of the goddess. Four Ionic columns spanned each end of the (tetrastyle amphiprostyle) building, while its sculptural decoration included a continuous frieze above the columns, two groups of figures in its triangular pediments and 10 gilded bronze winged Victories (akroteria) standing on the pitched roof. The northern and western sides of the frieze depicted battles between Greeks, perhaps including the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC. The southern frieze represented the Battle of Marathon against the Persians, while the eastern frieze contained an assembly of gods and goddesses ? much like the eastern frieze of the Parthenon. The pediments featured the Amazonomachy (west) and Gigantomachy (east), iconic battles between Greeks and Amazons and gods and giants, which in part evoked messages of Greek triumph over barbarism and the restoration of order out of chaos. The well-known sculpted balustrade also depicting Victories enclosed the Athena Nike sanctuary on three sides and prevented visitors from mistakenly taking the route of Aegeus. Mounted prominently on the sides of the bastion below the temple were shields captured from the Spartans at Pylos in 425 BC in one of the great battles of the Peloponnesian War.

War memorials and messages of Athenian supremacy were also to be found in the Sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi, another famous site that Greeks and foreigners from all over the known world visited ? just as today. The Treasury of the Athenians, located in a sharp bend of the Sacred Way, where pilgrims could not help but notice its symbolic decoration, served not only as a repository for the Athenians? dedicatory offerings but as a pedestal for the display of their war booty from Marathon. The Doric building?s sculpted metopes showed the Athenian hero Theseus juxtaposed with the mighty Heracles.

Further up the Sacred Way, again in a prominent position just below the Temple of Apollo, stood the Ionic-style Stoa of the Athenians, which seems to have had no other function than the display of war booty and the promotion of Athens. Built perhaps after 478 BC, the stoa housed trophies seized from the Persians, including weapons, ships? rams, and reputedly ropes from the pontoon bridge erected across the Hellespont by Xerxes? army. Later Athenian victories were also celebrated in this stoa, which must have been indeed an impressive, effective monument.